Can’t tell if your sore throat signals an infection, or if it’s just your allergies acting up? Take this self-exam to find out the culprit before dialing your doctor.
Step 1. Say “Ah”
Step in front of a mirror and shine a flashlight toward the back of your throat. This classic trick elevates your soft palate—the fleshy tissue on the roof of your mouth—in order to give you a better view of your throat, says Landon J. Duyka, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat doctor at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.
Step 2. Do a Spot Check
After you open wide, scan for any unusual colors or spots. Sometimes red spots on your throat are just normal lymphatic tissue, which actually fights infection, says Dr. Duyka.
But smaller, painful red spots and ulcers on your tongue and in your throat can signal a virus—especially if you’ve got a fever, he says. (In case it’s not obvious, this a clear indicator you should see a doctor.)
White spots are also a sign of infection, but if they look chalky and sit on your tonsils, they might be tonsil stones. “These are made by normal bacteria in your throat, and though they’re a nuisance, they aren’t dangerous,” Dr. Duyka says.
Step 3. Feel Your Lymph Nodes
Lymph nodes are soft, pea-size glands underneath your jawbone that play a major role in making sure your immune system stays up to snuff. If they swell up and feel sore, you may have an infection, says Dr. Duyka.
Use your thumb, index, and middle fingers to feel for your lymph nodes in the front of your neck, just ahead of the large muscle that runs diagonally from your ear to your collarbone.
If your nodes are swollen, you likely have an infection. But swelling is usually a good sign: Lymph nodes fill themselves up with infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes, which keep your infection from spreading to the rest of your body.
But if your nodes are larger than a marble or don’t go back to normal size within a month—long after your other symptoms have gone—have a doctor check them to rule out cancer.
British researchers recently found that people over 40 who saw their primary care doctors with swollen lymph nodes were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma than those with normal-sized nodes.
This article originally appeared in Men's Health Us.